Engaging Homeless Youth Through Electronic Case Management

Homeless young people using a library computer.

Electronic case management with homeless youth” (abstract). Kimberly Bender, Nicholas Schau, Stephanie Begun, Badiah Haffejee, Anamika Barman-Adhikari, and Jessica Hathaway. Evaluation and Program Planning, Vol. 50 (2015).

What it’s about: Bender and her colleagues wanted to investigate whether homeless youth would increase their engagement with case management services if they were offered non-traditional options for appointments and follow-up communication. They piloted an electronic case management model with 48 homeless youth, ages 18 to 21, to investigate whether they were receptive to communicating via phone calls, texting, Facebook messaging, and/or email. Participants were given pre-paid cell phones with unlimited calling and text messaging, and researchers recorded their email addresses and Facebook accounts. Young people attended electronic case management sessions every two to three weeks, on average, resulting in four sessions over a three-month period.

Why read it: Recently, we summarized a study assessing the mobile phone and social media habits of runaway and homeless youth. However, Bender et al. note that there is scant research about programs that use technology to boost young people’s participation in case management services. The researchers conducted this pilot study to document one agency’s use of electronic case management and to gauge whether it eased common challenges such as difficulty staying in touch with case managers and transportation barriers.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Electronic case management showed promise for keeping youth engaged, the authors write. Almost 88% of participants attended at least one session, and almost 33% attended two. Moreover, youth were relatively responsive to attempts to reach them. About 40% needed only one contact before attending a session, and 76% became engaged by the third attempt using a variety of communication channels. More than half of participants answered phone calls, and most responded to missed calls via a return call or text.

Young people overwhelmingly preferred texting, as evidenced by their behavior and responses to researchers. Participants said texting allowed them to communicate during times when they weren’t able to talk on the phone like during school or work. Email and Facebook served as good secondary contact methods, the authors say, particularly when young people's phones were lost or stolen.

Additionally, many participants offered positive feedback about electronic case management, citing how convenient it was to stay in touch without having to visit the shelter. Youth also appreciated the quick and helpful responses they received when they needed urgent referrals, and the way electronic case management helped them stay focused on their goals and the steps needed to achieve them.

Agencies considering electronic case management should prepare for privacy and ethical concerns, Bender et al. write, such as knowing when and how to react if they view sensitive information on Facebook. Organizations should notify youth of their privacy rights before starting electronic case management, they suggest, and let them know that any threats of harm to themselves or others posted on social media will result in a response from staff.

Additional references: Learn more about runaway and homeless youth and case management in our digital library.

Check out a slideshow with tips for serving traveling street youth.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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